Blood stem cells are immature "starter" cells for making blood cells. When you have leukemia, a stem cell transplant may be used to help your body make new healthy blood cells. It replaces the blood stem cells that are killed during high-dose chemotherapy, allowing your doctor to give you more intensive treatment. If you receive stem cells from a donor, the transplant itself may also help get rid of any cancer cells that may have survived the chemotherapy.
You should know that stem cell transplants are somewhat controversial. Your doctor may suggest one in these cases:
- Your leukemia is in remission after induction therapy, and you are healthy enough to withstand a stem cell transplant.
- Your leukemia does not go away completely with induction chemotherapy, and you are healthy enough to withstand a stem cell transplant.
- Your leukemia returns after a period of remission, and you are healthy enough to withstand a stem cell transplant.
A stem cell transplant is an intensive procedure that is most likely to be successful in people who are younger and healthy enough to withstand it. Whenever possible, using stem cells from a matched donor is preferred over using your own stem cells, but this requires having a matched donor available to provide the stem cells for the transplant. In many cases this may be a family member, but stem cells may also come from a matched, unrelated donor if no family member has the same tissue type as you. It's also important to discuss the procedure thoroughly with your doctor beforehand to make sure you understand the possible risks and benefits.
Stem cell transplants are complex procedures. They require the services of specialized doctors. If you decide to have one, be sure you go to a hospital that specializes in stem cell transplants. These hospitals are often accredited by the Foundation for the Accreditation of Cellular Therapy (FACT). The procedure is also expensive (costing more than $100,000), and not all insurance companies may cover the cost.